Consumer Personality Research Takes a Head Trip

Edward W. Hart, Jr., Heublein Inc.
[ to cite ]:
Edward W. Hart, Jr. (1980) ,"Consumer Personality Research Takes a Head Trip", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 558-560.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 558-560


Edward W. Hart, Jr., Heublein Inc.


The three papers in this session have presumably been placed together because each deals with some aspect of cognitive structure or style. Let me suggest that the paper by Houston does not fit with. the other two. (This is, of course, not in itself a criticism of that paper.) I see it this way because although all three papers are concerned with individual difference variables there is a fundamental distinction to be made. In the Malhotra et al. and Tan & Dolich papers those individual differences are relatively enduring cognitive traits (dare I say personality variables?) whereas Houston's research is focused on the more transitory elements of structure rather than structure itself. These elements, in this case beliefs about the importance of attributes, are revisable as new information is assimilated.

Immediately then we see that the usual remarks about personality research and consumer behavior don't apply equally across all three papers but only to the first two. Not that I was about to invite your wrath and my demise by reciting them anyway, for as Jerry Kernan (1979) remarked last year in a similar session: "At this juncture it is a capital offense to reiterate the do-and don't litany of personality research in consumer behavior. Every graduate student has read and/or heard it ad nauseaum."

For those who have been stranded on desert islands and have missed the message let me simply cite several authors who have dealt more than adequately with the problems of personality research and consumer behavior: Wells (1966), Jacoby (1969), Kassarjian (1971) and in the psychological literature Mischel (1968, 1977).

In fact Tan & Dolich themselves acknowledged the general failure of personality variables to yield much beyond "weak or non-existent statistical relationships" and concern themselves with the issue of cognitive complexity as an enduring trait versus as a situation specific response.

Indeed, the re-discovery of "the situation" in consumer research and its application to such diverse areas as personality research, information processing, risk taking, and market segmentation has to be among the major developments of our field in the past decade. Incidentally, if I may indulge myself a bit, just to show I'm no "Eddie-come-lately" to that development allow me to refer you to an unpublished master's thesis by Hart (1972) entitled "A Situational Study of Self-Esteem and Persusability."

Why then the persistence of personality variable research in consumer behavior? Kernan (1979) suggested that steadfast faith (in your heart you know it's right) in the "idiosyncratic-self" as the source of behavior, despite empirical evidence to the contrary, as the driving force for this persistence. However accurate a description that may be, I believe a highly plausible explanation may be found in Jones & Nisbett's (1971) "The Actor and the Observer: Divergent Perceptions of the Causes of Behavior" in which they identify the "observer bias." This is the tendency for observers to attribute the observed actions of actors to stable personal dispositions whereas actors attribute their actions to situational demands. Jones & Nisbett go on to cite empirical evidence in support of this observation and develop several ingenious arguments which explain why this is so. Time does not permit an account of these arguments. My point is simply to call your attention to the fact that we as researchers in our role as observers need to guard against that bias.

Despite the above, and in light of all that has been written on personality in the consumer behavior literature, I must disagree with Kassarjian (1979) when he concludes "we have milked and massaged this topic (personality) for all it is worth." On the other hand I must agree with Kassarjian (1979) when he concludes "that we probably need no more personality studies of the naive variety." The question is then, is this naive personality research? Ironically, I find that the two enduring individual difference papers, by Malhotra et al. and Tan & Dolich may be less naive than the paper by Houston, which simply goes to show that personality research has no monopoly on nanvetT. With that in mind let us turn to the papers specifically.


First of all this paper contains an excellent review of the literature. Second, the authors are in my view appropriately using a particular cognitive style construct, tolerance of ambiguity, as a mediator of information processing, rather than as a direct cause of behavior. Perhaps this use was somewhat more readily apparent in the case of cognitive style than for other personality variables because, as the authors point out, cognitive style has been defined by psychologists in terms of consistent information processing and organizing patterns for an individual. Cognitive style is a "natural" for investigation given the large amount of information processing research done in the past few years. A consistent finding of consumer behavior information processing research has been that consumers or any other information processors are greatly affected by the environment and that situational manipulations will not only produce strong group differences, but, also, within the same individual, processing strategies are seen to shift by situation and by the use of "phased" processing strategies within situations. This evidence does not rule out cognitive style completely but rather limits its role in influencing behavior. I see the limited role of tolerance of ambiguity or other cognitive style variables as accounting for variations in the degree of adaptation to the situation, again as mediators. In this paper the form of adaptation being mediated by tolerance of ambiguity, namely simplification strategy as operationalized by evoked set size and attribute importance weights seems to be an excellent linkage between the tolerance of ambiguity construct and information processing.

In fact, the use of personality as a moderator of information processing is in keeping with Nakanishi's (1972) conception of personality as a dynamic mode of adjustment to change over time and circumstance. This is why I believe the field is far from thoroughly "milked and massaged" because cognitive style/structure variables such as tolerance of ambiguity and cognitive complexity have great potential as mediators of information use.

In the first study, with 176 housewives, mean evoked set sizes and mean total attribute importance weights are contrasted between those classified as tolerant or intolerant of ambiguity by Budner's (1962) test. Some problems with this are: 1) classification criteria are not given for sorting subjects into tolerance of ambiguity groups; 2) information about Budner's test such as reliability, examples of items, discussion of measurement problems, and alternative measures of the construct is not provided; 3) the size of the groups of relatively tolerant and intolerant individuals is not shown in Table 1 nor does it appear in the paper.

In the second study, with 149 housewives, study 1 is commendably replicated with a different product category. Both studies support the hypothesis that size of evoked set decreases and total importance weights increase as tolerance of ambiguity increases. The authors are careful to test the size of the awareness set (analysis of covariance could have been used here rather than the separate analysis of variance which was done) and rule it out as a competing explanation. The authors discuss several areas of future research indicating a sensitivity to personality research issues mentioned in my introduction. One would hope they pursue these questions and produce a comprehensive document exploring the effects of tolerance of ambiguity and other cognitive style variables on information processing behavior.


Here too, there is a substantial literature review. This paper explicitly concerns itself with the key issue raised in my introduction, i.e., whether complexity of cognitive structure here defined as the extent of differentiation and operationalized via the degree of differentiated use of dimensions generated by the Kelly Repertory Grid Method, is a generalizable trait of the individual or a domain specific response conditioned by experience or familiarity with the product category. Again, the absence of validity/reliability data is apparent as well as a discussion of differences between this approach and integrative cognitive complexities, i.e., why was this operational definition chosen and not some other.

Their results included pair-wise correlations between product category complexity scores that were as the authors note "typical for personality research" and they are quick to add "and they are statistically significant.'' Yes indeed, however the r2's for the total sample range from .08 to .11, the same disappointing "10% personality coefficient" Mischel decried over a decade ago. Furthermore, if one looks at the pattern of pair-wise correlations one is surprised that automobile/toilet soap and apartment/toilet soap show equal if not greater correlation than do apartment/auto which would seem to be more similar situations from a number of viewpoints. As an amendment to the author's statement that "a person who is cognitively complex in evaluating one product class tends to be relatively complex in evaluation of others," let me add "to a very slight degree." So slight that one wonders if all that is being measured is common-method variance.

A second result was the finding that awareness, knowledge, and usage scores or familiarity generally, was not related to cognitive complexity scores. I don't believe that the procedure used, however, really gave the familiarity/situation specific hypothesis a fair chance. Remember, from a list of 22 "brands" subjects were asked to pick the 10 most familiar so that we may simply have a restriction in the range of the predictor variable in their regression analysis which would account for the lack of any observed relationship between familiarity and cognitive complexity.


As mentioned in the introduction, this paper deals with beliefs and perceptions of graduate business programs, which are, in my opinion, elements or content of cognitive structure and not cognitive structure itself. Structure denotes a set of relationships among elements as, by analogy, in the structure of a building we refer not so much to the materials used but the way in which they were assembled.

Here elements of cognitive structure, henceforth beliefs about the importance of various business school attributes or simply beliefs, are treated as dependent variables and differences in these beliefs are analyzed by producing segments of students based on academic performance, sex, academic background, and previous work experience.

My major concern with this paper is its naive faith in retrospective self report data following a difficult major life decision. Putting aside the threats to internal validity posed by the study's after-only design consider the following pitfalls: distortion, forgetting, post-decision dissonance reduction and rationalization are all likely to be operating here. Nowhere in the paper is mention made of the identity of the questionnaire but since it was mailed it had to be returned so that for a good proportion of respondents the questionnaire was coming from the school they had chosen (whether anonymity was guaranteed is not mentioned in the paper). Thus, the possibility exists that responses have been rationalized in the direction that the respondents might consider to he more acceptable from the point of view of a business school. In fact one could argue that the results were simply a reflection of the information perspective students have received in catalogues from business schools.

From an external validity viewpoint there is also a problem. All 371 subjects had been accepted by the same Masters' program. This means they all chose to apply that program, all fit through the same set of screening grids, a large proportion accepted the offer, and, finally, we have only the data on the 240 who chose to return the questionnaire. We are left with a highly homogenous non-generalizable population. Finally, here are some futher problems of a lesser nature: 1) The finding that location was not important, "potential markets do not seem geographically restricted" is a conclusion that may simply be due to the restriction of range in the subject population; 2) several of the segmentation variables might have been combined to produce interesting groups. For example Low Cumes/High GMAT versus High Cumes/Low GMAT. Also discriminant analysis could have been done using importance ratings to assign subjects into demographic or other classification groups. This was probably not done because the group sizes were small; 3) I believe the term "salience" is misused as in the summary of the paper where it is suggested that "the underlying cognitive structure and the salience of its components across various segments of the prospective students represent one major aspect." What was measured are post hoc importance ratings, not salience, which is the degree to which these attributes stood out in the respondents minds at the point of decision.

One would hope that the author will pursue this important and interesting line of research with further studies employing longitudinal designs which show the change in importance weights at various stages in the decision process plus samples drawn from several business school populations so that the results may be generalized.


Budner, S. (1962), "Intolerance of Ambiguity as a Personality Variable," Journal of Personality, 30, 29-50.

Hart, Edward W. (1972), "Situational Study of Self-Esteem and Persuasibility," Unpublished Master's Thesis, Purdue University.

Jacoby, Jacob (1969), "Personality and Consumer Behavior: How Not to Find Relationships," Purdue Papers in Consumer Psychology, No. 102.

Jones, E. E., & Nisbett, R. E. (1971), "The Actor and the Observer: Divergent Perceptions of the Causes of Behavior," New York: General Learning Press.

Kassarjian, Harold H. (1971), "Personality and Consumer Behavior: A Review," Journal of Marketing Research, 8, 409-418.

Kassarjian, Harold H. (1979), "Personality: The Longest Fad," in W. L. Wilkie (ed.), Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. VI., Ann Arbor: Association for Consumer Research, 122-124.

Kernan, Jerome B. (1979), "Personality and Consumer Traits: The Beat Goes On," in W. L. Wilkie (ed.), Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. VI., Ann Arbor: Association for Consumer Research, 125-127.

Mischel, Walter (1968), Personality and Assessment, New York: Wiley.

Mischel, Walter (1977), "On the Future of Personality Measurement,'' American Psychologist, 32, 246-254.

Nakanishi, Masao (1972), "Personality and Consumer Behavior: Extensions," in M. Venkatesan (ed.), Proceedings of the 1972 Meetings of the Association for Consumer Research, 61-65.

Wells, William D. (1966), "General Personality Tests and Consumer Behavior," in J. Newman (ed.), On Knowing the Consumer, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 187-189.